Growing Number Of Botched Projects Fixed

Monday, January 01, 2007

Homeowners Margaret and Daniel Anderson were proud of the work they did to upgrade their basement -- until all the lights went out. Electricians investigated, and found a fire hazard: Some wires were loose, bare and crammed together so tightly that electrical boxes were getting singed. The Andersons ended up paying a handyman service $10,000 to tear out walls and finish the basement. "It was all wrong," says Ms. Anderson. "They just bailed us out." The recent do-it-yourself boom has led to a growing number of botched projects as ambitious homeowners get in over their heads. Now, handyman services and some contractors are increasingly going after a long-overlooked segment of the $215 billion home-improvement and repair market: fixing people's snafus. House Doctors Handyman Service, a Milford, Ohio, home-services company that will fix or finish bungled projects, has opened 15 new franchises this year. HomeFIXology is a Tampa, Fla., franchiser of handyman services that was launched this year, anticipating, in part, a growing need for services to rectify botched or abandoned projects, says its director of operations, John Ogg. And Handyman Connection, a national home-improvement chain based in Cincinnati, last year added 400 tradesmen who can handle these types of jobs. "We see this as a niche and growing market for us," says Steve McCoy, the owner of the Handyman Connection franchise that fixed the Andersons' home in Colorado Springs, Colo. The firms also anticipate a growing market as baby boomers age and come to need help on projects they once could do themselves. In the past, people who bungled their own renovations often didn't know where to turn. Home Depot and Lowe's don't usually send contractors into jobs that have already been started because of concerns over liability and warranties. During the recent housing and renovation boom, many contractors shied away from such jobs, too, because they were too small and could involve challenging clients. "If you come into a botched kitchen, you are already dealing with an aggrieved homeowner, and you are going to have to tell them that it is going to cost more than they ever thought it would," says Paul Winans, a California remodeler and chairman of the board of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry. But now more contractors are taking on smaller repair jobs as the remodeling market slows down. According to data released last month by Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies, spending on home improvements and repairs rose just 1.6% in the year that ended in September, compared with a nearly 19% increase in the year-earlier period. Housing experts say the slowing real-estate market may also be encouraging more homeowners to pick up a hammer instead of hiring a professional. Already, 32% of Americans surveyed in 2006 said they or someone in their household had done home improvements in the past year, up from 24% in 2001, says Experian Simmons, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., market-research firm. Bill Owens, of Owens Construction, in Powell, Ohio, estimates that in the past year his remodeling firm has taken on about half a dozen smaller handyman projects started by ambitious homeowners, compared with just two the year before. Roger Peugeot, a Kansas City-area plumber, says he has seen calls nearly double in the past two years, and he has added staff and extended hours on Saturdays -- the day he is most likely to hear from people needing help on projects gone awry. He'll sometimes dole out free advice over the phone. "There will be the day when they'll get sick of it and won't do it," says Mr. Peugeot. "Then I'll have a real customer." Home-improvement Web sites that fueled the do-it-yourself boom are also increasingly helping homeowners avoid or rectify mistakes. two months ago launched a forum called "My Projects" where people can share their work or post "project woes and get the help you need to overcome your problems," says the site. One recent post: a homeowner seeking help after buying a refrigerator that didn't fit between two kitchen cabinets., another home-improvement site, features articles targeting common mistakes such as "10 Biggest Kitchen Design Mistakes" and "10 Ways to Purchase the Wrong Bathroom Vanity." (Among them: "Awkward Door Swing" when the cabinets open and hit the toilet.) And this month, E. W. Scripps Co.'s HGTV cable-TV network launched a program called "Over Your Head," in which a construction expert helps out families who have botched do-it-yourself projects, including one family that showers under the hose in the backyard after a problematic bathroom remodel. The program shows "the astonishing number of families who live among the ruins of unfinished projects after homeowners bungle and abandon home renovations," says a release by the network. Geraldine Bujnowski of Chicago had to get help on a project before reaching that point. A self-proclaimed renovation-show addict, the 58-year-old wore a respirator while using a chemical stripper to remove tiles from her kitchen, but she still developed breathing problems. A doctor told her she had mild asthma related to the process. She eventually hired local remodeler Don Van Cura, who decided to cover up the area instead of creating more toxins by removing the glue. "I had a vision for my kitchen, but as I progressed I found I was entering into an area where I could endanger my health," Ms. Bujnowski says. But before homeowners pick up the phone to call a handyman, they should be aware the average job for a firm is usually between $400 and $500. While some franchises will do jobs that cost less than $100, they may charge up to $50 for a service call and in busy areas may prioritize more lucrative projects. It's a good idea to ask early on if a handyman has a minimum, as well as checking out references. And, of course, don't worry that your handyman will laugh at you. Ed Mueger, co-owner of a House Doctors franchise in Bergenfield, N.J., says he tries to be sensitive to clients. He worked for a client this summer who had spent months redoing his basement. When Mr. Mueger came in for another project, he noticed his client had removed several load-bearing support poles. "The house would have imploded," says Mr. Mueger. When clients botch a home project, Mr. Mueger tells them a disaster story worse than their own. "They are looking for friends inthese situations," he says.

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